If the contemporary era thinks it has cornered the market on presidential candidates who think outside the box – such as Ron Paul and Herman Cain – it should think again. American history is chock-full of one-of-a-kind politicians with White House aspirations.
Nevermind all the self-nominated hopefuls like Leonard “Live Forever” Jones – a Kentucky original who thought he could live forever and ran for president in the mid-19th century – or Homer Tomlinson – a New York preacher who ran unsuccessfully several times in the 1950s and eventually got fed up and appointed himself “King of the World.”
We set as our criterion: People who were nominees of a political party – people chosen by others to potentially be leaders of the free world. In most cases, these candidates attracted delegates, garnered popular votes and even helped shape American politics. Here then is a barroom brawl-starting list of the five most unusual nominees for president. Ever.
1. Free LoverLibrary of Congress/APVictoria Woodhull
Nominated in 1872 by the Equal Rights Party, Victoria Woodhull is considered by some to be the first female candidate for president in the U.S. Born Victoria Claflin in Ohio, she was a trailblazer on many fronts. She and her sister, Tennessee, were among the first women stock brokers in New York. And together they published Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which, according to a 1927 Associated Press story, supported equal suffrage.
In May 1872, the Chicago Tribune reported on the Equal Rights Party convention in New York as “a curious congregation of long-haired people calling themselves ‘Reformers’ and representing at least a score of peculiar social theories.” The convention’s choice for vice president was Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a revered abolitionist, writer, lecturer and statesman. The convention was the zenith of Woodhull’s political career. It was all downhill from there and by election time, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the dauntless Victoria and her sister were in jail, while infuriated enemies threatened to poison them or burn them alive…. The charge against them was that of using the mails for the circulation of questionable literature.”
During her long life, Woodhull was a clairvoyant, a proponent of legalized prostitution and eugenics, and an advocate of free love. She was married and divorced several times. She lived her last 30 years in England.
2. Esperanto EspouserCourtesy of John SillitoParley Parker Christensen
Parley Parker Christensen of the Farmer-Labor Party ran for president in 1920 against Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James Cox. Christensen was chairman of the nascent party’s convention in Chicago, which was all set to nominate Wisconsin Gov. Robert Marion “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr. Christensen only emerged as a compromise candidate after La Follette and others turned down the nomination, says John Sillito, an American history professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
Christensen “was totally unknown to more than a handful of delegates,” Sillito says. “But a combination of parliamentary skill, being in the right place at the right time and personal charisma led to his nomination.”
The Utahn Christensen – 6’4″ and, by some accounts, nearly 300 pounds – was a proponent of Esperanto, the universal language, and “he had a penchant for appearing each day in a crisp, white linen suit – no small feat in Chicago in July,” Sillito says. As a presidential candidate, Christensen pushed an advanced agenda, including recognition of the Soviet Union, women’s suffrage and civil rights for black Americans.
Christensen also advocated an early version of public financing by urging the government to fund ad space in major newspapers where all presidential candidates could air their views. While Christensen’s vote total was only 265,000 or so, Sillito says, “he did amazingly well in Washington state, South Dakota and Illinois. Of course he was running for president while many radicals were supporting Eugene Debs who campaigned from federal prison – now that is an unusual candidacy!”
3. Kremlin CandidateLibrary of CongressWilliam Z. Foster, right
William Z. Foster was the American Communist Party’s presidential candidate in 1924, 1928 and 1932. In 1928, he was nominated by 2,000 conventioneers in New York’s Central Opera House. Part of the party’s stated platform was the overthrow of capitalism in the U.S.
Foster was a working man’s working man. Through the years he held jobs as a lumberman, longshoreman, chemical-worker, streetcar motorman, circus canvas man and deep-water sailor, among others. He was often fired because he tried to organize his co-workers, according to a UPI report, and he was often jailed because of his subversive activities.
When Foster died in 1961, he received a state funeral in the Soviet Union. It has been reported that his ashes are interred in Red Square beside those of fellow American communist John Reed. But according to Time magazine: “A niche had been prepared for Foster’s urn in the Kremlin wall, Communism’s Valhalla. But portly Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an old comrade of Foster’s who had flown over from the U.S. for the funeral, had other ideas. ‘From you, dear comrades, we received his ashes,’ she intoned at funeral’s end, ‘and we shall return them to our country for burial.'”
4. Secret Agent’s ManAPEarl Browder, right, the Communist Party’s candidate in 1936 and 1940, crosses a hammer with a sickle.
Earl Browder, a protege of William Z. Foster, ran as the Communist Party’s candidate in 1936 and 1940. A World War I draft resister from Kansas, candidate Browder followed the Communist Party line of a United Front against fascism and condemning Hitler, according to historian Jerrold Schecter, co-author of Sacred Secrets, How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History. “Browder was Moscow’s candidate,” Schecter says. “At that time the American Communist Party was cooperating with American labor and supporting FDR for a second term. It was a complex alliance since the Communist Party was also involved in espionage and Browder and his relatives were knowing of Soviet clandestine operations in America.”
One such secret agent, soon to be in the U.S., was Kitty Harris, whom Schecter describes as Browder’s “common-law wife” when he was living in China. When Browder ran for president in 1936, Schecter says, Harris “was in Germany and the Soviet Union preparing for her career as a spy.” In 1941, Harris returned to the United States under a cover name and worked as a Soviet spy in America and Mexico.
At the 1940 Communist Party convention in Madison Square Garden, the Chicago Defender reported, some 20,000 delegates cheered the nomination of Browder, who was “at liberty under $7,500 bail, pending his appeal from a passport forgery conviction.” He was sentenced to four years in jail – the same four years he hoped to be in the White House. But 1940 was a tough year for the presidential candidate. His Russian-born wife was deported and though he stayed out of jail on continued appeals, he wasn’t allowed to travel. So he ran his campaign from New York and his name was stricken from the ballot in many states. Though he lost the election, he won a pardon from President Roosevelt in 1941. A few years later Browder was expelled from the Communist Party because of his belief that communism and capitalism could co-exist.
5. Single-Issue AdvocateEnlarge Bettmann/CorbisEllen McCormack, left
Though the Long Island, N.Y., housewife had never held political office, Ellen McCormack sought the Democratic nomination in 1976 on a single issue – she wanted a constitutional ban on abortion. “I stand for the rights of the unborn,” she said in the New York Times.
During the primaries, McCormack garnered more than 200,000 votes, according to The Washington Post, and she was the first female presidential candidate to qualify for federal campaign funds and a Secret Service detail. She pulled in three delegates at the party’s national convention and her name was placed in nomination with several other candidates, including Jimmy Carter, who would eventually get his party’s nod.
After the election, McCormack helped found the Right to Life Party. When 1980 rolled around, many members of the party wanted to support Ronald Reagan, but selected McCormack as its official nominee instead. McCormack died in March 2011. She was 84.